A lesson from Langkawi ghost town

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The ghost town of Langkawi is a fantastic lesson for religious extremists.

Langkawi used to be a popular tourist destination not only for foreign tourists but also for locals. The island, famed for its Mahsuri legend, has been developed and promoted as a premier island resort equipped with modern infrastructure and facilities since 1984. Later, on January 1, 1987, the Mahathir administration designated it as a duty-free port to boost its socio-economic development.

While the charm of the island lies in its natural beauty, the duty-free shopping provides an added attraction to domestic, Asian as well as Western visitors. Langkawi Island, which is a cluster of 99 islands situated in the northern state of Kedah, also got its boost after the Malaysian government actively promoted it as one of Southeast Asia’s premier meeting and exhibition destinations.

For example, the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA), which was first held in 1991, attracted government officials, trade delegations and visitors from all parts of the world. In 2012 alone, the island welcomed a total of 3.06 million international and local tourists. Like many holiday destinations, Langkawi relies heavily on both first-time and repeat visitors.

However, the island has been losing its shine among Malaysians, let alone foreigners. The confirmation that it is turning into a “ghost town“ came from Langkawi Tourism Association (LTA) Chief Executive Officer Zainudin Kadir, who revealed last month (November) that bookings at hotels rated three stars and below had plunged to 10% despite the coming Deepavali celebrations.

Zainudin said 31 out of the 163 food operators registered under LTA had to shut down while some car rental owners sold off their vehicles to avoid bankruptcy. He blamed it on the lack of ferry services and complaints on social media about expensive food. In denial, however, Kuah lawmaker from Bersatu, Amar Pared Mahamud, disagreed about the decline of tourist arrivals in Langkawi.

Amar bragged that ferries were almost fully booked – hadn’t a clue that the number of trips between the island and the mainland had been slashed. The statistics from the Langkawi Development Authority (Lada) showed a month-on-month drop of almost 20% since September compared with last year. But the problem isn’t only about transportation or high food prices. It’s about “Islamic radicalization”.

In September, Tourism, Arts, and Culture Minister Tiong King Sing told the Dewan Rakyat (Lower House) how non-Muslim travellers to Langkawi were stopped from buying alcohol and wearing shorts in public. A general manager of a four-star resort said – “The first thing foreign guests would ask us upon checking in now is whether they can wear bikinis or short pants at the beaches.”

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However, Langkawi MP Mohd Suhaimi Abdullah, who defeated Mahathir in the Nov 2022 General Election, said the government should implement a full duty-free status to rejuvenate the island’s tourism industry – admitting that cheap alcohol is a factor in attracting tourists and his own Perikatan Nasional government, comprising Bersatu and PAS, had screwed up the duty-free port.

So, Langkawi has tonnes of problems plaguing its tourism industry, which contributes 90% of the island’s economy – poor ferry service, pricey food, negative publicity, dubious status of a duty-free zone, expensive hotels, alcohol clampdown and whatnot. It didn’t help that the cost of flights from Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi would cost an arm and a leg. Who in their right mind would travel to this place?

Thanks to the Malay voters in Langkawi, and PAS-rule Kedah state government for that matter, tourists are avoiding the island like a plague due to harassment by enforcement officers over the dress code. Like it or not, the people of the island deserve the impact of the tourism meltdown as a result of voters choosing religious extremism over bread and butter.

The notorious Kedah Chief Minister Muhammad Sanusi in November 2021 announced that the state will ban licences for gaming and lottery ticket outlets, besides limiting the sales of alcohol in Muslim-majority areas in Kedah. The Islamist policy of the PAS state government has spooked potential tourists – both domestic and foreign – from considering Langkawi as a tourist destination.

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For non-Muslims, consuming alcohol is allowed at bars and clubs in Dubai. In fact, the Arab Emirates is radically cutting alcohol taxes and ending fees for drinking licences to make it more attractive to expatriates and tourists. The UAE decriminalised drinking alcohol in 2020 at a federal level, while Dubai has launched legal alcohol delivery and Abu Dhabi ditched its alcohol licensing system.

Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to wear swimming trunks or bikinis at the beach or by the hotel pool in Dubai. So, who is PAS to prohibit non-Muslim travellers to Langkawi from buying alcohol and wearing shorts as if the island is being ruled by the Taliban regime of Afghanistan? Tourists can always go to Bali, Hat Yai or nearby Phuket paradise, where everything is cheaper and tourists are not restricted by silly Islamic rules.

Under previous Muhyiddin’s regime, liquor sale was banned in convenience stores, sundry and grocery shops along with Chinese medicine shops. The former backdoor prime minister did not even care to consult non-Muslim minorities. Subsequently, even a “non-halal” section of Jaya Grocer outlet in Eco Grandeur, Puncak Alam, was forced to close for selling alcohol in the store.

In 2021, in the first step to deny – and destroy completely – non-Muslims’ rights, the DBKL (Kuala Lumpur City Hall) issued an order that pubs, bars, lounges, and restaurants with licences to sell alcohol will only be allowed to serve liquor between 10am and midnight. Strangely, beer can be sold from 7am to 9pm, raising questions over the logic behind the alcoholic beverage ban.

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The best part was that premises that sell liquor must not be within 100 meters of police stations, houses of worship, schools, hospitals, and residential houses. In a country where police stations can be converted into a disco with a free flow of drugs, booze and prostitutes, it was laughable for the authorities to impose restrictions on non-Muslims, and pretend to be a pious government.

Finally, this week – a year after Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim took over the government – the previous ban on liquor sales imposed by the Muhyiddin regime has been scrapped. Excise Licensing Board of the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur (ELBKL) chairman Dr Ronald Pua announced that Chinese medical halls and sundry shops in the country’s capital can continue to sell hard liquor.

While the capital Kuala Lumpur is unlikely to become a ghost town like Langkawi due to a ban on alcohol, the excessive Islamic restrictions imposed on non-Muslims have made the country unattractive to not only tourists but also the economic sector. Investors, particularly Westerners, would consider the “liveability” of a country before pumping millions or billions of dollars.

That’s why even Saudi Arabia, the most conservative Muslim country in the world, is slowly liberalising the country to attract foreign investments. Unable to attract investors, largely due to the kingdom’s repressive Islamic law, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had to create the NEOM economic zone – a US$500 billion Desert Dream – which enjoys some special regulations related to investment.

NEOM, a massive eco-city 33 times bigger than New York, will be the key pillar of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 strategy to diversify Saudi’s economy away from oil and gas. Aimed to attract 5 million international tourists annually, it will have its own tax system and operate according to “progressive laws that are compatible with international norms and conducive to economic growth.”

If even oil-rich Saudi Arabia has woken up to the reality and is reforming its conservative Islamic curriculum, it’s a suicide mission for a multi-racial and multi-cultural country like Malaysia to regressively Islamise everything, including tourism. It’s not a coincidence that the lifting of alcohol sales came after PM Anwar announced 30 days of visa-free travel to visitors from China and India effective December 1.

Tourism is the low-hanging fruit the Anwar-led Unity Government should have picked from the beginning. Exactly what took the government so long is beyond comprehension. The fact that Langkawi is still struggling to hit 3 million visitors today, the same number first recorded in 2012, shows that the island’s tourism has not improved – even deteriorating – ever since.

Revenues from tourism in Malaysia hit a whopping RM28.23 billion in 2022 – an essential source of foreign exchange earnings – even though it was a huge drop from an all-time high of RM86.14 billion in 2019, just before the Covid-19 pandemic. The country is targeting an influx of 16.1 million foreign tourists with RM49.2 billion in tourism revenue this year.

Whether they are Chinese or Western investors, alcohol and entertainment are part and parcel of business meetings where deals are made and networking is established. Malaysia is not the only country in the region. Businessmen will gladly bring their dollars to Singapore, Thailand or even Vietnam. The ghost town of Langkawi, which ex-PM Najib Razak once dreamt of becoming “Monaco of the East”, is a fantastic lesson for the religious extremists. – Finance Twitter